Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Actor Sings

Take the first step towards singing

At some point in your improvising career you are going to have to sing. From the humble Do Ron Ron to the long form musical you are going to have to fire up the pipes and belt out a tune. This article will seek to find some strategies to find some ways to approach singing.

I can’t sing!

This, not to put too fine a point on it, is a bold faced lie. Not everyone can sing well - but everyone can sing well enough to perform in an impro song. You don't have to be Sinatra or Sutherland to be successful in an impro song.

The main trick to approaching a song, like most impro, is confidence. If you show that you are not scared to do get in front of an audience and sing they will usually run with you. They want you to succeed. Popular music is littered with people who can't actually sing. Are you saying that you cant sound any better than Johnny Rotten or Bob Dylan?

(Kris: For some more advice for folks who aren't confident about their singing voice, have a read of The Question for some reasons why It Just Doesn't Matter.)

Rhythm and melody

In improvised songs rhythm is more important than melody, meaning it is more important to be in time with the music than have an exciting vocal line to sing. Most people have a better sense of rhythm than pitch and usually won't notice if you are a little flat or sharp on your vocal line. However they will notice if you are out of time.

Now if I may digress, a little primary school music lesson.

Most popular music is based on the number 4.

That's about as complex as I'm going to get with it. But usually there a 4 beats to each bar and you can tap/count this out. Go on, try it now with a song you like. Just try to find the rhythm and tap it on your knee. Once you feel comfortable with it you can start counting it out with "1 2 3 4, 2 2 3 4, 3 2 3 4, 4 2 3 4, 1 2...” and so on. You will start to see how the song falls into this pattern - it is the most common one used in improvised song and in western music in general. After doing this for a while, the rhythm will start to get ingrained in your subconscious and you will automatically be able to pick it up in any song.

(Just as a side note this is a time signature known as 4/4 or Common time. It really is that prevalent.)


The most important thing about singing is to relax. If you tense up it will put unnecessary strain on your voice. As well as doing a vocal warm up it is important to do a physical warm up as well. Make sure you aren't carrying any tension particularly in your face, shoulders and neck.

On that note, relaxing also means not trying to go out of the comfort range of your voice. Most untrained singers will have a range of about an octave or so, which is plenty in terms of range for improvised song. Trying to hit notes that are too high or too low for you can cause unnecessary stress on your voice, and in extreme cases lead to permanent damage.

It is important to know the characteristics of your voice and what it can do. An exercise you can try for this is to stand on your feet with your knees slightly bent. Put your hands on your stomach. Take a deep breath in and let a comfortable note out without too much volume. While doing this, be aware not to use your shoulder to breathe. Now - here is the trick: try to imagine that your stomach is filled with a balloon, and that while you are breathing out you are trying to keep that balloon inflated. Keep doing this on slightly higher or lower notes until it just becomes uncomfortable and then go in the other direction. Try to remember the top and bottom end of your range and know where you are comfortable.

The Final Countdown

Singing is a very important skill in your impro arsenal and your limits with this are basically determined by how far you wish to go with it. If you get on stage to do an impro scene you already have the skills to do an impro song. If you want to take it a bit further you can start trying to do musical impro jams or training. Even getting half a dozen lessons from a professional singing instructor can be very useful, in terms of establishing your range and learning some good warm-ups. Its also surprising how much your voice can improve in a short time.

And remember: 1 2 3 4.

Photo by brtsergio

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